There’s a boy in the Upper Midwest, in high school. He’s tall. A magazine wrote about him. “The Life of an American Boy at 17,” the article was called.
The boy is white. The people around him are white. The editor of the magazine, which is called Esquire, is white. People noticed this. The things you would expect to happen proceeded to happen—one of them was surprising because it was the sort of thing everyone thought would happen, but it accidentally happened in public: the editor briefly published, on Twitter, a piece of a self-pitying conversation that was supposed to be happening in private. The word “guillotines” was involved, and it was addressed to a writer who specializes in annoying people and acting upset when they get annoyed.
Everything about the article was tiring. The 17-year-old boy’s attitudes and remarks about politics were tiring, partly because they were the same things reporters have been getting white people from the Midwest to say for years now, but partly because he didn’t even seem to mean them. They seemed to have been dragged out of him by the reporter, with great effort on both sides, for nothing of any value.
Here was one exchange the reporter and the 17-year-old boy had on one subject of controversy:
I ask Ryan if he has discussed #MeToo in any of his classes. “I’ve heard of that,” he says. “What does it mean again?”
He had heard of it. He wanted to know what it meant again.
The politics of the existence of the article were bad; it was billed as “Part One in a Series on Growing Up in America Today,” and the editor promised more stories on more kinds of people, but it was the cover, and it is only fair to expect everyone involved to have thought about what it meant to make Part One be a white boy who says he supports Donald Trump. Either they thought about that, or they didn’t think about it, and neither way is good.
What was hard to get from reading about the article, before going on and reading the article, was the actual way in which the article expressed its politics, through its badness as a piece of writing. People seemed mad at the kid, and the kid said dumb stuff, but the kid didn’t seem committed to being dumb. He mostly seemed like he didn’t know any better. And the writer and the editors didn’t care.
Here was another sentence from the article:
The winters are long and cold.
Here was another sentence:
We walk down hallways with speckled terrazzo floors and cinder-block walls covered with colorful murals, plaques with inspirational quotes, and rows of burgundy lockers.
Winter is like that. Schools are like that. Someone may have told themself the dead dull flatness of the writing meant something. The limited words and the limited thoughts maybe were supposed to match the kid’s limited life. It felt rude and dumb in two directions: it was rude and dumb to the kid, to not be curious if he was anything but shallow. And it was rude and dumb to the rest of us, to treat Trump Country as a surface that no one can do anything but look at.
The whole thing was just rude and dumb, and lazy—not lazy like the writer didn’t go places, or look at things, or type a lot of words, but lazy like nobody cared if that was all she did. These people don’t really count. The readers don’t really count. Showing the readers the people in a way that makes the readers mad does count, a little.
The article almost got good, once. They went to see the kid’s dad and the kid’s stepsister. They went hunting and the stepsister wanted to kill a bear. She hoped to shoot the bear in the heart with a crossbow. No bear showed up, and Esquire figured it had showed them hunting, which was the type of people they were, and the writer went away.
If the writer had stuck around, maybe the day would have come that the sister shot a bear in the heart with a crossbow. That might have been something to read.